ATLANTA (AP) — Democrats on Saturday neared the end of a long, competitive battle to choose a new national party chairman who will attempt to turn widespread opposition to President Donald Trump into more election victories.
One of the leading candidates, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, told Democratic National Committee members the party is facing a “crisis of confidence” and a “crisis of relevance” after losing about 1,000 elected posts from Capitol Hill to state legislatures during the last decade, in addition to Hillary Clinton’s presidential election loss.
“We need a chair who can not only take the fight to Donald Trump but make sure that we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity and talk to that big tent of the Democratic Party,” he said.
The other top contender, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, said Democrats “are the ones who are going to stand up, rise up and protect the American people.”
Both men promised aggressive rebuilding efforts for state and local Democratic parties.
Other candidates will address the gathering before ballots are cast Saturday afternoon. Seven candidates are on the ballot, and multiple rounds of voting were expected before anyone claims the required majority.
The chair campaign has been uncharted territory as Democrats face a power deficit not seen in nine decades — beyond the lifetimes of virtually every American voter. Republicans control the White House, Congress and about two-thirds of U.S. statehouses. The GOP is one Senate confirmation fight away from a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
With Democrats in agreement in their opposition to Trump, the race is likely to turn on who convinces enough DNC members to believe in his or her promises of rebuilding party infrastructure that withered under former President Barack Obama despite his personal electoral success.
Perez said he would “rebuild strong parties” and “organize, organize, organize” so Democratic nominees could win “from the school to the Senate in all the states.”
Ellison told voting members he has signatures from 750,000 rank-and-file Democrats who support his chairmanship bid. He promised to “convert them from demonstration energy to electoral energy.” He pledged to prioritize small donations to finance the party, while working to “organize this whole country.”
Perez got into the race at Obama’s urging, but he has pushed back on the notion that represents the same “establishment” label that dogged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Ellison has endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and also from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
For their parts, Ellison and Perez have praised each other and promised unity regardless of the outcome.
Democratic mayors of the nation’s two largest cities have taken opposite sides. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is at the meeting campaigning for Perez. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is lobbying members on Ellison’s behalf.
A third candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, is leaning on former Chairman Howard Dean, popular among party liberals and state party leaders. Buttigieg’s hopes depend on Perez and Ellison being unable to capture a majority after several ballots, a scenario that might lead the party to look for a third option.
Party chair races usually aren’t undecided when the actual voting starts, because a leading candidate usually emerges to make the ballots a formality. This time, the uncertainty has party staff and 442 eligible DNC members dusting off complicated rules that usually don’t matter.
For example, party officials expect about 70 or 75 members to be absent. Nearly all have designated another member to cast paper proxy ballots on their behalf. But that also adds a layer of suspense: Members in attendance will vote electronically, with quick tallies, while the paper proxies must be counted by hand. That will create a longer wait with the candidates and members unsure of the results and, perhaps, not even knowing how many total votes there are and what the majority threshold will be.
After a second round of voting, the rules require that the last-place finisher be dropped from the next round of voting. Lagging candidates also may drop out on their own, narrowing the field.
Clinton has stayed out of the DNC contest, but she made a video appearance at the party gathering Friday.
“Let resistance plus persistence equal progress for our party and our country,” she said, praising the Jan. 21 women’s marches across the country and other signs of public criticism of Trump. She also indirectly noted her popular vote victory, which Trump has insisted was not legitimate. “Nearly 66 million votes,” she said, “are fueling grassroots energy and activism.”